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In Alaska village, 'young punks' threaten workers, jeopardize fuel shipment

Alex DeMarban
Alaska Community Photo Library

A mob of teenagers in a Western Alaska village allegedly stole four-wheelers and taunted a foreman with racially charged threats, forcing a work crew Sunday to flee town and abandon a $10 million tank-farm project.

Alaska State Troopers expect to bring charges against the alleged troublemakers in the Yup'ik Eskimo village of Stebbins, a spokesman said Thursday.

The sudden departure of Anchorage-based STG Inc., which is weeks away from finalizing work on a new tank farm in Stebbins, cost the community of 600 a chance to receive the fuel shipment they need for winter heat and gas, said officials with Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, the state's largest rural electric utility.

When the village will get another opportunity to receive fuel by barge is unknown.

The federally funded project must be completed first and the tank farm turned over to the community, but that won't happen until September. Or, STG workers could accept the fuel earlier on behalf of the school, city and corporation, but STG construction crews won't return to Stebbins until the company feels its safe, said project manager David Myers.

Residents may pay extra for youth troubles

Stebbins is an island village located just off the Bering Sea coast and southeast of the Gold Rush-era town of Nome. It still has time to get its fuel shipment, as weeks remain before the sea ice sets in this fall. If the fuel doesn't arrive, however, winter shipments by air will escalate costs tremendously.   

The value of a summer fuel shipment in Alaska's roadless villages was vividly illustrated a few years ago, when the Kuskokwim River dropped too low and the village of McGrath couldn’t get a fuel barge in, forcing the company to fly in gas. Prices at the pump jumped $3 overnight, to more than $9 a gallon. To avoid such a dilemma this past winter, the village corporation in Nome hired a Russian icebreaker to deliver fuel that should have arrived in summer.

Even if Stebbins gets its fuel before the ice moves in, electric costs could still rise this fall. Meera Kohler, head of AVEC, said the utility might tack a fee onto local electric bills to pay for costs associated with the disrupted project. 

"At this point, I'm thinking we can charge it as a surcharge to the community so they take ownership of this problem," she said.

'Young people out of control'

The cooperative, which runs power plants in more than 50 villages and hired STG for the Stebbins tank-farm project, established a policy in 2004 to charge communities for what it calls "preventable costs." The policy stemmed out of incidents of vandalism, and the surcharge is meant to ensure other villages in the cooperative don't pay for the problems caused by a single community, Kohler said.  

"Young people out of control (and) that no one is willing to take to task is a preventable action," she said.

The utility has never invoked the clause, Kohler said. Still, vandalism is a cost of doing business in the Alaska Bush for AVEC and other companies, where villages can have limited or no police presence. At the same time, many villages are packed with young people because of high birth rates.  

Most incidents are minor. But with youth carousing all night in the land of the midnight sun, companies such as STG board up windows and lock down equipment to prevent thefts and tampering.

The hijinks can sometimes cost millions of dollars. Children playing with matches burned down a school and part of the Southwest Alaska village of Hooper Bay in 2006. Just recently, authorities said they suspect children playing with cigarette lighters started a blaze that torched four buildings in Teller, a village located in the Nome region.

What happened in Stebbins went beyond mischief, Kohler and others say.

No one was hurt, but STG officials say it involved threats from a pack of apparently young intoxicated males, forcing workers to spend a restless night with pistols nearby.

The conflict began brewing July 30 after the company's two four-wheelers were stolen, according to STG's statements to troopers.

Workers found the four-wheelers in the village two days later. They locked them behind a fence at the utility's tank farm. The fence was plowed down on Friday by a four-wheeler, but nothing was stolen.

The break-ins happened again Saturday night, before the situation then exploded.

One of the STG four-wheelers in the yard was hot-wired and used to ram through the re-installed fence. The company's foreman hopped on the remaining four-wheeler and found the stolen vehicle later that night, just after it'd been rolled.

When the foreman leapt off the four-wheeler to talk to the rider who had rolled the other vehicle, someone else stole the foreman's ride and sped off. That's when the rider of the rolled four-wheeler tried to start a fight with the foreman, "using verbal abuse, body gestures and spitting in (the foreman's) face," STG reported to troopers.  

By the early-morning hours of Sunday, the foreman recovered one of the four-wheelers. As he rode back toward the yard, he passed what he described as a group of about eight young men outside his apartment screaming and gesturing at him. They followed him to the yard, forcing him to lock the fence and jump inside a locked heavy-equipment loader for safety.

"He wasn't armed, but he was ready to defend himself with the loader if need be," Myers, the manager of the work crew allegedly threatened in Stebbins, said. The group circled the fence, blocking exits and taunting the foreman for up to an hour, screaming they were going to "get the white," STG reported to troopers.

The foreman left the loader and the yard only after calling two fellow workers on a cell phone. They arrived with pistols. That's when the crowd dispersed and the workers went back to their quarters, but all three workers got little sleep the rest of the night. 

Myers was in Anchorage early Sunday morning when his "calm but extremely shaken" foreman called him. Myers decided it was best to fly the workers out of Stebbins immediately.

The foreman, who an STG official said wished not to be named, did not return calls from a reporter. He's a seasoned worker with close to two decades of experience with STG, traveling to villages across the state, Myers said.

"He has been through a lot, but he's never seen anything like this," Myers said.

Nora Tom, the Stebbins city administrator, said the community held a meeting with AVEC officials Tuesday and is seeking a resolution to calm STG's fears and get the tank-farm project going again so the village can get its fuel for the long winter. She declined to say more until the issue had been resolved.

The meeting came at the utility's request, AVEC officials said. Another meeting was set for Thursday night in Stebbins. Flying in were officials with STG and the utility, as well as state troopers and representatives from the state's Division of Community Regional Affairs. AVEC was picking up the several thousand dollars to transport everybody on a chartered flight, project officials said.

How to keep the peace?

One solution to get work back on track and ensure the community has fuel might entail filing for a restraining order to prevent the "young punks" from harassing the crews, said Leonard Raymond, one of a few peace officers employed by the city of Stebbins.

He believes the main troublemakers were 14 to 17 years old, including a few with elderly guardians who can't discipline their kids.   

Part of the problem is that there's no certified, armed police in town, Raymond said. Stebbins' officers can't do much to stop kids in these cases, not without orders from a juvenile court or Alaska State Troopers, he said. Raymond wasn't on duty when the thefts escalated into near violence last weekend, but he said STG reported the incidents to city officers on duty.

Troopers from Nome flew to the village Wednesday to begin investigating the alleged thefts and break-ins, said Megan Peters, trooper spokeswoman, adding that charges are expected to be filed against the teenagers.

Meantime, STG is looking into hiring security guards to finish the tank-farm project, possibly returning on Monday, Myers said. The city has also offered to assign a peace officer to remain with the workers when they're in the village.

"I can't expect my guys to run a project during the day and then handle security at night," he said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com